A Chance to Even the Scales in Game 4
Date: August 24, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 3 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Series: 2-1 HOUSTON
Thunder took a pivotal Game 3 into overtime on Saturday. After two games in which its offense was inconsistent in sticking to its identity for 48 minutes, OKC showed in Game 3, with its back against the wall, why it’s so dangerous playing its preferred style of basketball through all four quarters – plus an added five minutes in overtime.
“We know that if we play the right way, play to our identity, anything is possible,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander after the win on Saturday. “We’ve proven that so many times this year that’s just our mentality now and it’s part of our nature.”
A major key to the Thunder’s offensive identity is its balanced scoring which was on full display in Game 3. For the first time in Thunder history, four players scored 20 or more points in the playoffs: Danilo Gallinari (20), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23), Chris Paul (26) and Dennis Schröder (29).
The Thunder’s trusty three guard lineup combined for 78 points and contributed massive, timely boosts of offense and energy throughout the game to withstand the 38-point performance of James Harden and keep the Thunder in a position to win the game.
In the first half, it was Schröder who came in the game as the Thunder’s usual spark plug off the bench. OKC started the first quarter 2-of-14 from the field and had yet to make a 3-pointer. The offense looked akin to that of Game 1 and the second half of Game 2, but the Sixth Man of the Year contender checked in and dropped a quick seven points and injected a shot of speed and tempo into the Thunder’s offense.
Perhaps the best showing of the Thunder’s well-timed, rhythmic offense was in the final seconds of regulation. The Thunder, down two points, had an opportunity to take the lead after an untimely Houston turnover with 13 seconds left in the game. Chris Paul drove the lane on James Harden and whipped out a cross-court jump pass to Gilgeous-Alexander who was spotted up in the corner for a wide-open 3-pointer and knocked it down with confidence. This set the tone for a dominating 15-3 performance by OKC in overtime to seal the deal.
“We just wanted to fight,” said Paul. “We know how tough it is coming back from down 3-0 so we wanted to fight tonight and I think that’s what we did.”
Going into Game 4, the Thunder will look to continue its positive momentum that it has built on both ends of the floor in its first three games of the series. The chance to even out the series on Monday afternoon will be a test in emotional and physical toughness to correct any areas of improvement while also maintaining the encouraging high-level offense it showed in Game 3 despite any adjustments made by Houston. It will come down to controlling what can be controlled and upholding composure in the good and the bad.
“When you look at the fact that we got the win (Saturday) night, we’re playing again (Monday) afternoon and we’ve got to do it all over again,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “We’ve got to be able to stay present in what’s going on and understand that although it’s one win, can we come back and play better again tomorrow? I think we got better from Game 1 to Game 2 and Game 2 to Game 3, can we get better now from three to four?“
Watch: Game 4 Preview
In Game 2, seven of the eight players to step on the floor for the Rockets scored in double figures. The production from the reserves and role players kept the Thunder at bay even without James Harden on the floor. Such was not the case on Saturday night. Only four Houston players scored in double figures, but the league’s leading scorer in James Harden led all players with 38 points.
However, 15 of the Beard’s points came from the foul line and his 3-of-13 shooting night from behind the 3-point line was underwhelming. Harden had to work for each of his looks on Saturday, once again, thanks to the stifling performance of Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort. The fellow Arizona State product looked more like a seasoned defensive veteran matched up against Harden. Keeping him in front on drives and not requiring much help at all from his teammates while only picking up three fouls on the night.
“Lu just gives phenomenal effort and I think when you’re playing against great offensive players you just gotta try to make it as difficult as you can on them,” said Coach Donovan. “Lu’s just fighting and working as hard as he can with the help of his teammates being in a position to kind of give him some support.”
The Rockets’ reserves who played a pivotal role in Game 3, were outscored for the first time this series by the Thunder bench 35-26. Jeff Green scored 22 of the reserve’s 26 points after knocking down five 3-pointers.
On Saturday, the Thunder showed the effectiveness and efficiency of its offense when it plays to the pace and tempo that it desires. As the initiators of the offense, the three-guard lineup of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder proved to be a handful when getting into the lane and into the teeth of the Rocket’s defense.
After three games, the Thunder have found its rhythm with its trio of guards against the switching, paint-protecting Houston defense. Keep an eye on how the Thunder wields this weapon going into Game 4.
“I think we’re starting to figure out how to play against their defense,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “They’re the only team in the NBA that plays like that. That’s something that we have to get used to, but I think we figured it out.”
Stat to Watch
Turnovers. Although the Thunder’s offense hummed at its usual pace and rhythm, it committed 18 turnovers that resulted in 22 points for Houston on the other end. Going into Game 4, look for OKC to put an emphasis on protecting the rock and limiting as many fast break opportunities for the Rocket’s as possible.
On the flip side, Coach Donovan’s squad forced a series-high 16 turnovers by Houston in Game 3 that resulted in 16 points for OKC. The disruptive defensive energy by OKC’s perimeter defenders like Dort, who swatted a playoff career high 3 blocks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who tied his playoff career high with four steals, added to the Thunder’s ability to play in an open floor and against a scrambling Houston defense.
An area that has played to the Thunder’s hand all series long has been its ability to win at the free throw line. Coming into the series, the Rockets were second in the league in free throw attempts(26) and makes (20) each night in the regular season. In the past three games, the Thunder have averaged a plus-6 free throw differential per game which is the second largest in the NBA this postseason. Keeping the Rockets off the free throw line is an example of a controllable area on the defensive end where the Thunder will work to remain consistent through the entire series.
“The way we play defense, we want to show our hands as much as we can and that’s what we gotta do the whole game,” said Dort who only committed three fouls against Harden in Game 3. “Really I feel like we did a good job of just showing our hands and not fouling them.”